“I used recipes from my great-grandmother’s handwritten cookbook”: This receptionist gave up her job to become a takeout chef during Covid

“I used recipes from my great-grandmother’s handwritten cookbook”: This receptionist gave up her job to become a takeout chef during Covid

Becca Pereira was working two receptionist jobs at the beginning of last year. Then, during Covid, she turned to her family’s handwritten recipes for comfort, and ended up running her own thriving takeout operation—all centred around her great-grandmother’s signature tangy butter chicken. Here’s how she pulled it off. 

As told to Liza Agrba

“I started modelling when I was 16. I was pretty successful, with lots of commercial work, but decided to quit after three years, in 2019. As someone who loves food, I felt like I was losing a part of myself: I was living on soup and salad, going to 15 castings a day and constantly being critiqued on my body. I just didn’t feel challenged or motivated to keep doing it. I was going through the motions. Your appearance doesn’t last, and I wanted to be recognized for something else: something that hits closer to the core of who I am.

“Last January, I told myself that 2020 was the year I would finally go for the things I want. That ended up happening, but in a different way than I expected. At the start of the pandemic, I was working two receptionist jobs—at a hair salon in the daytime and at a massage clinic in the evenings. I’d recently decided to go to culinary school, but when Covid began, that wasn’t an option anymore. I went from having a strong sense of purpose to being, well, really confused.

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“My family is from Goa, India, and I grew up learning to cook with my mom, who’s a professional chef. We used a family recipe book—an ancient pile of handwritten pages with scribbled notes, really—passed down from my great-grandmother. During the first lockdown, I was lucky enough to have a bit of work with the hair salon, since there was a ton of rescheduling appointments to do; we had a 500-person waitlist. I was earning a couple hundred dollars a week on top of CERB. But mostly, I was just cooking a lot with my mom over Zoom. I really missed her, and cooking together, even online, was comforting to me; when we prepared meals together, I almost felt like I was eating her cooking again.

“In June, when the Black Lives Matter movement took off, I decided to do a fundraiser for Afri-Can Food Basket, which provides emergency food support for families in Toronto’s Black community. I prepared 20 portions of my great-grandmother’s butter chicken for the first 20 people who DM’d me with a donation screenshot. Her recipe is different than what you’ll find at most Indian restaurants in the city: it’s less sweet and more tangy, because it uses a tomato paste base.

“A lot of people in the city were doing creative food pop-ups—not professional chefs, but passionate home cooks like me. And then something clicked: none of them were doing Indian food. I immediately started looking for a kitchen space. When salons reopened and my old boss called to ask if I would come back, I quit on the spot. Thanks to CERB, I had some money saved, which I’d never had before.

“The very next day, I went to see the Depanneur, where they had affordable kitchen space available on Tuesdays. I called my business Spice Girl Eats and decided on a pre-order model, where I would come up with a set menu, take orders in advance, and go in on Tuesday to cook everything and prepare it for pickup. I spent all of September working on recipe development: I cooked and ate butter chicken every day for weeks. I’d always felt creative, but I never knew how or where to apply it. It definitely wasn’t a part of my modelling career, where I was more like a mannequin than anything else. With cooking, I finally found an outlet. I felt in control of my life for the first time ever. I get to invent, tweak, and refine, all while doing something I genuinely love.

“We launched on the second Tuesday of October, with a small menu of saag paneer, sourdough naan and, of course, butter chicken. We sold out within hours. And since then, we’ve sold out every week. When I started out, it was just me, with my brother doing deliveries. Two months later, I was able to hire my mom to come work with me. We do everything together, from recipe development to planning to cooking. She’s the OG Spice Girl, and I couldn’t do it without her. My sister, who’s an amazing baker, does all the naan and is starting her own business too, called Sour Dope Bakery. We all have so much fun together.

“Things don’t always go perfectly. Recently, we did a chicken korma from my grandmother’s recipe. But since the yogurt in India is so different from the yogurt here, the curry completely split. My mom helped bring it back together: she said she prayed to her late mother before customers started picking up their orders at 5:30. I modified the recipe, adding only a little yogurt at the end, and it worked out amazingly well.

“I’m learning more on the job than I would have learned in culinary school. My knife skills are rapidly improving because I have to butcher 25 pounds of chicken every week. And I’m learning about my culture, because all these recipes we’re developing from my family cookbook are intertwined with stories about my grandmother and great-grandmother.

“Three months in, we’re producing more than 50 orders a week, and I’m looking at adding another day in the kitchen. I like the idea of popping up around the city once the pandemic is over, or maybe starting a food truck. And I still want to go to culinary school eventually. I never want to stop learning about food.”